10 ways to keep your spine happy
1. Improve your desk chair
Work from home became the norm during the pandemic. The problem? Many people spend several hours a day in “a set-up that wasn't intended to be an office,” says Elizabeth Cook, MD, a spine pain management specialist at Summit Health. Upgrading your seat with a lumbar support pillow can reduce discomfort and improve posture.
2. Get up and move
No matter where you work, it’s important to move around. “Keep the body active,” Dr. Cook advises. “Mobility is important.” If you work at a desk, she recommends setting an alarm to remind you to take frequent movement breaks throughout the day.
3. Work on your core
Strengthening your core abdominal muscles helps support the spine. Core exercises may also reduce the frequency and intensity of flare-ups for those with chronic problems, notes Dr. Cook. Pilates and yoga are two good options for core muscle strengthening. Keep it simple: you do not need special equipment to get quality core exercise.
4. Exercise regularly
Aerobic exercise releases hormones called endorphins that naturally reduce pain. Walk, run, ride a bike, or head to the gym to use a treadmill or elliptical machine at least three times per week for 30-minute sessions, says Dr. Cook.
You can build up the muscles around the spine and in the extremities by weightlifting and using resistance bands. Remember: Never bend over when lifting heavier items. Instead, squat with your legs, keeping your back straight while you rise with the object in your arms.
5. Quit smoking
Giving up cigarettes or vaping is priority one. “People who smoke report higher pain levels than non-smokers, and have tougher recoveries when something does go wrong, such as problems with wound healing and far more frequent recurrent disc herniation,” notes Dr. Cook.
6. Watch your weight
Moderate your intake and try to shed any excess pounds. “Obesity plays a negative role in spine health and recovery after injury,” explains Dr. Cook. “The increased weight stresses the spine and contributes to problems that result in ongoing pain.”
7. Put screens at eye level
Did you know the human head weighs about 11 pounds? The way we dangle our heads over phones and laptops means we're dragging that weight from the tops of our spines. Raising screens to eye level improves posture and reduces strain on the spine.
8. Don't use Google as your doctor — see a provider
You can have spine pain for numerous reasons, from strains and sprains to pinched nerves, arthritis, or conditions like spinal stenosis. “Discs, the cushions that separate our vertebrae, don't have good circulation. If you live long enough, there will be degeneration,” explains Dr. Cook. “The best way to optimize your outcome when a problem occurs is through an accurate, timely diagnosis from a knowledgeable provider followed by a customized, multidisciplinary treatment plan that works for you.”
9. Watch where you're walking
Sounds like a no-brainer, right? But with the way everyone texts and walks at the same time, it's easy to have an accident that ends up damaging your spine. Dr. Cook says to be especially careful outdoors and on stairs.
10. Try physical therapy before you take pain meds
If an action causes you pain, try a therapeutic solution like physical therapy. Water therapy is another excellent choice for a lot of spine problems. Dr. Cook also offers various interventional approaches to provide relief, from epidural and joint injections to radiofrequency ablation and spinal cord stimulation, for intractable spinal and nerve pain. Always discuss any potential treatment options with your physician.
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